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Originally published March 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 3, 2009 at 5:18 PM

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Gangs: Once a member, it is difficult to get out

Some Seattle teens trying to get out of gangs are finding it's not so easy. With one slip, one split-second decision, their loyalties to friends, family and turf can trigger dream-dashing violence.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About this series:

The Seattle Times is taking a closer look at the culture of youth violence — the perpetrators, the victims and the people trying to stop the cycle. We invite readers to share their experiences, suggest stories and ask questions.

Read more on this topic:

Seattle schools scramble to outsmart gangs

Ex-member of Crips gang in Seattle credits an adult mentor with helping him to break from gang

In the flash of a bullet, a young man goes blind

Youth 180's goal: "Stop these kids from killing each other"

Rap sheet puts 16-year-old defendant on fast track to adulthood

Coming Wednesday: One gang member killed by gunfire last year is remembered fondly by family and friends, but the last thing they'll do is cooperate with police who are looking for the killer.

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David, a Seattle high-school sophomore, looked around the bleachers during a Franklin-Rainier Beach basketball game in January and saw trouble.

David spied about 10 guys changing seats, closing in on where he sat near the top of the Franklin gym. He recognized them as members of a South Seattle gang that wanted to jump him.

David tapped a text message to Marcus Harden, a school intervention counselor who was sitting on the other side of the gym: "You see them mobbin'? It might go down tonight."

"Come over here discreetly," Harden responded.

David did. As soon as the game ended, Harden hustled David and a friend out a back door.

David thinks the South End guys just want to beat him up. Still, Harden said, "It's not a chance I want to take with their lives."

Teens such as David, 16, and Robert, 17 — both students mentored by Harden — are trying to get out of gangs and finding it's not easy.

Gangs gave them what many teens want — money, protection, respect and recognition.

But things that drew David and Robert to gangs — friends, a surrogate family, membership in a clique — also make it hard for them to quit. (The Seattle Times is not using their full names to protect them from possible reprisals.)

David's double life

David leads something of a double life. He's a student-athlete who goes to church and takes his grandmother to Wal-Mart on Sundays. He's also affiliated with a gang — something his hardworking mother doesn't know.

David said his home life was "almost ideal" when he was a boy. His mom and dad seemed happy in their South End house. They imposed strict rules and stressed right from wrong.

But his parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade. He grew angry. He felt his parents didn't live up to their values and quit on the family.

"I felt lied to. I said, 'forget almost everything you taught me.' "

Tall and soft-spoken with a shy smile, David started fighting. He said he "demolished" an older boy from Rainier Vista in front of a small crowd. He became known for his signature move of bear-hugging opponents, slamming them to the ground and pummeling them into submission.

His friends said he should get "put on," or initiated, into a gang. That meant fighting another guy. "I was down for fighting so I fought the dude. Afterward they jumped me. I thought OK, cool, I guess."

David went to parties. He fought. He stole. He hung out with older gangsters, or "big homeys," who carried MAC-10 submachine guns in their waistbands. He called his gang clique his "family."

He even shot at someone once — he says he missed — when he was trying to "be hard" to impress a big homey.

"It's all about respect. Beat somebody up with your hands, you got respect," he says. "Pop somebody, you got respect."

Robert

Robert started fighting at 12 to make a name for himself.

It worked. The once-chubby kid became somebody. "I was the guy that hit the dude two times and his knees crumbled like cornbread."

At 13, Robert got put on by a Central District (CD) gang. "I was banging hard. I carried the burners [guns]. I sold the drugs. I smoked every day. I had the girls."

He pleaded guilty to an assault charge just before his 14th birthday.

"Your progress is seen 24/7 on the streets. It's that recognition, that shine that every guy wants," says Robert, compact and muscular and constantly moving and punctuating statements with the question, "You feel me?"

He was reared by his grandmother, aunt and foster parents. His parents were caught up in drugs, he says.

He was 7 and living in subsidized housing, he says, when he first saw the allure of a criminal lifestyle.

"If you grow up and you see flashy chains, clothes and cars and everybody talks about some dude doing this and that, saying he's got class, style, that's what you're going to want. That's what I ran after, that lifestyle."

Role model

The sparkle of street life started to fade for David and Robert when they got to high school and came to trust Harden, 30, an imposing 6-foot-5 former Rainier Beach football star.

Harden met some of the young men he mentors when they attended Madrona K-8 school, where he works as a counselor. He provides them something many gang-involved teens lack — an adult male role model available almost every day.

The turning point for David came late last year.

He was hanging with his best friend from the Central District when they ran into three South End guys who started "beefing" with his buddy, cursing the CD.

David had the audacity to side with his friend, even though it meant going against gang members who lived in the South End like he did.

"I said, 'You're not going to beat him up just because he's from the CD. He's a cool dude. This is my guy.' "

A fight broke out. David says he beat up a guy. Some South End gang members including the guys who were surrounding him at the basketball game now see David as a traitor.

"This really propelled me" to change, David says.

Fear of disappointing his mother also played a part. She's a college-educated professional who always insisted he pursue a degree. His mother would be "crushed," he says, if she found out about his gang affiliation.

He now wants to focus on getting a college-football scholarship. He hopes to become a pro player, or an actor, or maybe a lawyer or CEO. "Everything I want to do is big," he says.

But first he's got to get past the South End guys.

Two weeks after the Franklin-Rainier Beach game, four of them came looking for him and his Central District friend at school.

A school security officer escorted them out. They came back in five minutes. Again they were told to leave the campus. One of them threatened to "come back and shoot" a school security officer, according to a police report.

"I doubt it's going to end," David says.

Backup plans

Robert — who once dreamed of becoming Frank Lucas, the real-life heroin kingpin portrayed by actor Denzel Washington in the 2007 film "American Gangster" — says he wants to become an electrician or underwater welder. He wants to study business in college so he can manage his money.

To stay away from trouble, he's careful about what buses he rides. "There are certain times I'm in the CD and I'm out, times I dip into the South End then I'm out."

But, he says, if anybody hurt his little brother he'd probably retaliate with violence.

"I refuse to carry a burner," Robert says. "But if it comes down to that I'm a wolf. I'm not a sheep. Trouble comes my way, that's when I pick it up."

Harden says David and Robert's career goals may face long odds, but he wouldn't tell them they're unrealistic. He doesn't want to kill anyone's dreams. Instead, he stresses they should have backup plans.

"They all have dreams," says Kaaren Andrews, principal at Madrona K-8. "That's what we forget when we see kids standing on the corner. And their dream is not to stand on the corner."

Similarly, Harden doesn't criticize their gang loyalties because teens often view those as family ties. Condemn those, he says, and you'll alienate a teen. Instead, he asks them to consider that their loyalties could get them killed.

The teens he mentors need consistent attention from adults to help them feel important. Teens such as David and Robert are one reason that city officials are hammering out plans for an $8 million initiative to prevent youth violence.

Harden says he worries most about their sense of invincibility. "I could see that in Robert in eighth grade, and the thing that scares me about David is his fearlessness."

Robert acknowledges his obstacles. But everybody has problems to overcome, he says.

"It's up to me. Nobody's in my way, only my laziness. I could be the next Obama, in my mind. You feel me?"

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or seattletimes.com">byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company


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